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Writing a Believable Male Character - Guest Post by John Hansen

John Hansen is a YA writer, a literary agent intern and a teenager. He blogs here and also tweets.

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Well, it’s time for a confession: I’m still in high school.

Yes, it’s true, and because of this I get a lot of questions about how one should go about writing a believable male POV. I wanted to add my thoughts here. Before you read on, I suggest you read Jay Kristoff’s post last year on writing outside your gender, because I agree with all of it

Done that?

Good. That means it’s time to tell you the long-lost secret of writing a believable male character. Ready? Here it is:

There is no secret.

It’s annoying, I know, but that’s the secret. Just like with any adult, there are so many different types of teen guys that there is no real secret to writing one. Even so, there are ways to do it well.

Identify Your Type of Male Character

First and foremost, you have to know your character. There are an unlimited amount of teen guys like there are an unlimited amount of types of adults, but in a broad sense, you have to identify what kind of guy your MMC is. Is he popular, athletic, a total chick magnet? Or is he smart, shy, with a sweet crush? Or is he a class clown type kid, who’s just in it for pulling pranks and cracking jokes? Or maybe he’s in between—athletic but shy, smart, and awkwardly funny? The combinations are endless. Write down four adjectives to describe your male MC. From those you should be able to give him a basic position socially, physically, mentally, etc.

So now that you’ve identified that? You have your exterior. This is what your MC will act like on the outside. This is also where stereotypes help you: Most male teens, in fact, act like their stereotypes on the outside. But that is only on the outside.

Identity the Interior

Now that you have the exterior, you need to get inside your MMC’s head. Making his personality realistic but also unique is not easy and neither is it supposed to be, but there are ways to make it work.

First off, every teen is different, so keep in mind that stereotypes don’t apply to the deeper personality. For example, a smart kid can still be extremely competitive in sports. A popular kid can be still be the kindest person ever. A class clown can still be a genius. A rebellious kid can still care about others. And so on.
Also, make sure your MMC isn’t too perfect. He should have a lot of redeeming qualities, yes, but he should have his flaws as well. So you can make the MMC good-looking and athletic if you want, but maybe make him overly cocky, or something else to flaw him. Be sure to show his tender side, too. Show his insecurity. Show his stress. All these factors count. Another thing is, while girls should be on your MMC’s mind, make sure he isn’t only in it for the girl. Give him motivations outside of his relationship, give him a personality of his own. Make him human.

Which brings me to my next point: All male teens feel insecure deep down, no matter the social status. We all have angst. We all have compassion somewhere. We all worry. We all fear. We all stress. All of us. It’s part of being a teen. It’s what makes teens fun to write. It’s an underlying theme that you need to capture when writing one. And with all that stress, confusion, struggle to stand out in the world, etc. all teens have that one thing that makes us feel better. For some, it’s a love interest. For others, it’s just being with friends. But your character might be different. Give him that one thing. That one place. That one person.

I like to use John Green’s characters as good examples of male teens. He does such an excellent job of making them so different, so quirky and smart but with the flaws most male teens do, in fact, have: His characters can be stupid, ignorant, insecure, but you can’t help but like them anyway. Plus, they have clearly defined agendas beyond just the relationship. Or if you want a complete opposite type of teen guy, Kody Keplinger does a great job of contrasting Wesley Rush’s self-centered, carefree exterior and his vulnerable interior in THE DUFF… and he’s not even the main character!

Note the Gender Differences

So there obviously are differences between how guys and girls think. For example, teen guys don’t talk much, but we have a ton—and I do mean a ton—of angst and awkwardness and words we want to say but don’t going through our minds every second of every day. To write a good male teen, you really have to get inside his head and show this contrast between thought and speech. Show what he wants to say, but doesn’t. Show how often he wants to kiss the girl next time him, but doesn’t. Show his thoughts, his restraint, and his choosiness of his dialogue. This also applies to writing any teen character.

You probably already know this, but teens, male or female, tend to think in extremes. Be sure to capture that in your writing.

Another thing: Guys can be as insecure as girls when it comes to relationships. Yes, some will brag all about a crush, but others will keep it to themselves. This is where you need to go back to knowing your character—what would he do? Would he really tell everyone about it? Many guys won’t, but yours might. It’s a lot to do with social status, how past relationships went, etc. I know it sounds shallow, but it’s true.

One last comment: Don’t forget to give your character something he cares about beyond just the relationship. Everyone has something they love to do, and it’s important to show this. It makes your character more realistic and human. It also helps readers find common ground and connect with him. For example, maybe your MMC loves sports, or academics, or computer programming, or writing, or whatever else you can think of. It would also be interesting to see a teen with a passion for something fairly quirky; I’d suggest making him obsessed with memorizing the last words of famous people, but John Green has already taken that.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to make your character different. Unique characters are more fun to read about, anyway. That said, always be true to his personality. When something is forced, readers will notice. And, of course, good luck! I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Thanks for reading!

Kate Hart

Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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  1. Love this post! Thanks! (Yeah, that sounded like a total spambot, but it's really just a person who wants to leave a compliment but is also in a hurry.)

  2. Great post! When I first started writing, I definitely had Perfect Male Character Syndrome. You'd think with four brothers, I'd have plenty of examples of annoying traits and flaws.

  3. Angst and awkardness: always good things to have in teen characters.
    Not talking about feelings and fears and insecurities isn't necessarily gendered though; it's perfectly possible to have male characters that act in what are typically seen as feminine ways, and vice versa, without the characters necessarily even appearing to the outside to be gender non-conforming in any real way (and without even being some form of LGBT).

  4. Great reminders here about the contrast between what a guy thinks in his head/and what he actually says or doesn't. Loved the examples!

  5. Some really useful advice here. Definitely one to keep in the writing tips file. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this.

  6. I very strongly needed this. Attempting sci fi that's all male POV. Thanks!

  7. Fantastic post with even more fantastic tips. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This was useful in so many ways. I shall refer to this many times! Thank you, John!

  9. Great post! I have a MMC, so I'm always looking for ways to make his voice more genuine. Thank you!

  10. I love this post, especially since I am updating a class I teach for female authors in trying to make beleivable male characters. I will be delivering the class again in February, so when I take a fresh look at the student material I will keep this in mind. (And when I am writing my own males.) I start students out exactly the way you begin, get to know the character's archetype and the backstory that makes him the guy he is, and study his unique brain traits, what things are important to him and how does he react to stress. We really are looking at what makes him unique, regardless of archetype. Then we go in to how he walks the walk and talks the talk, with girls, with friends, and with adversaries. Thanks for the additional tips.

  11. As a female who writes predominately male characters, I highly approve of this post. Awesome writing!

    Beta readers - When you read a first person short story and it's not immediately clear whether or not the character is male or female, DO NOT immediately assume that the main character is the same gender as the author.

    I've had that happen far too many times...

  12. This is really helpful, I was doing some writing last night focusing on a scene with one of my main male characters. Sometimes I wonder if I'm making him a believable guy. Am I making him say thing males typically wouldn't say? I hope not.
    Thanks for this!

  13. Thank you all SO much! I'm sitting here, grinning like an idiot right now.

  14. Ran across this and realized I recognized your name! Glad to see you are still going strong. Thank you for such an amazing article.

  15. This is a brilliant post, John! (As always.)

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  17. Great post. :) I agree, I think it's more important to make each voice stand out then to worry about gender roles society trys to plsce on us. Now on the flip side I do follow the gender roles to a point, if it works with the characters personallys.


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Item Reviewed: Writing a Believable Male Character - Guest Post by John Hansen Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart